By Madisen Carter
Saint Martin’s University Women’s Basketball Player, Leah Sopak, is now in her second season with the Saints. Last season, the Saints finished with an overall record of 7-6, and now Sopak is ready for the team to continue to improve everyday and dominate in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference this season.
Over the last week of November, the Saints placed in the D2SIDA Women’s Basketball Division II Media Poll for the first time in program History. The team tied with Southwestern Oklahoma State at No. 25. Sopak not only credits the team’s defense for their success, but also credits the relationships that she and her teammates have built together.
“Our team chemistry is probably the best chemistry I've ever had on any team, and I've always had good chemistry on all my teams. This one's just different,” Sopak said. “We all basically live together [and] we're in the gym every hour of the day, so I think that's what really makes us good. We're all on the same page on everything [and] we all want to win a ring.”
The Saints are currently 8-2 overall on the season and are currently on a three-game winning streak. After defeating Pacific and Simpson at home, the team was announced the GNAC Team of the Week on Monday, December 20th.
Sopak said one of her main goals for this season is to keep learning and growing as a player. So far, Sopak has learned a great amount from her first season with the Saints and has been using what she has learned for this season.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic shortened Sopak’s first collegiate basketball season, Sopak said the experience was a blessing and allowed her to put in extra practice. Practicing with experienced college level basketball players helped Sopak’s game tremendously and also changed her perspective on basketball as she learned that every skill needs to be on point because everyone is a high level athlete.
“Everyone's stronger so you definitely have harder competitors. People are faster [and] everybody's more in shape,” Sopak said. “Everybody [that is] playing college basketball, that's their life.”
Before her freshman year, Sopak took time over the summer to work out at the Unlimited Potential Basketball training facility with Coach Packie Turner to help prepare her for college ball. Sopak heard about Coach Packie through mutual friend and professional basketball player, Sabrina Ionescu. Sopak said that she and Packie worked on her finishes and ball handling skills.
“I've had many trainers in the past, and it's kind of like ‘Okay, next trainer.’ Nothing sticks. [But] as soon as I worked with Packie I [thought], ‘This is awesome,’ he makes it so fun,” Sopak said. “My ball handling into a shot is amazing compared to [how it was] in high school, and I give that to Packie.”
Not only was Sopak able to gain more knowledge on the court her freshman year and through training, but she also learned a lot about herself as well. Early last season, Sopak was advised by her coaches to take about a month off of basketball and find her identity.
During that time, Sopak was able to find activities to help take her mind off of the game. She loves the water, so she was able to find a spot 30 minutes from campus where she could sit and watch the water to cool down and take her mind off of things. She also made friends that are in other sports at SMU, and took the time to listen to their stories and experiences that they had in their sports.
“When you have practice every day [and] most of your time, it gets to your head a lot. Honestly finding something to do other than basketball, a topic other than basketball really helps so [that] when you get on the court, then you can just put full focus there and not worry about anything else,” Sopak said.
There is still plenty of basketball in store for Sopak and the Saints this season. For their next game, the team will travel to Bellingham, Washington to take on the Western Washington Vikings in their second league game of the season on Saturday, January 1st. Until then Sopak and the team will be in the gym preparing in hopes to extend their three-game winning streak to four.